The Yankees have won a number of 4-3 and 4-2 games this season (eight to be exact), but only once have they come away victorious from a game in which both teams scored fewer than three runs. They did it for a second time last night, despite Mike Mussina working inefficiently and hitting another fifth-inning pot hole.
Thing started unusually with Scott Podsednik reaching on a bunt single to lead off the game only to be thrown out stealing on the first pitch to Tadahito Iguchi. Derek Jeter then launched El Duque's second pitch in the bottom of the first to the gap in left only to have Aaron Rowand break directly to where the ball was hit and make a full extension catch on a dead run before flopping onto the warning track. Three pitches later, Rowand caught a Robinson Cano drive on the run on the warning track in the right center gap. Hernandez then walked Sheffield on six pitches and Alex Rodriguez hit one where Rowand couldn't get to it, half-way back in the left field box seats. 2-0 Yankees.
In the top of the second, a pair of White Sox singles back over the mound put runners on first and second with no outs. Mussina then struck out Jermaine Dye and Rowand gave the Yankees their two outs back by grounding into a double play.
The Yankees added to their lead in the bottom of the second. Tino Martinez reached on a one-out seeing eye single past Iguchi. Tony Womack, who has started the last two games because Bernie Williams is nursing a sore shoulder, followed with an opposite field slap double, just his second extra base hit since May 13 and his first double since April 26 (Womack has seven extra base hits on the season, four of them came in April). Tino moved to third on Womack's double and scored on a groundout by Jeter for the third Yankee run. That would be all the Yankees would get. It would also be all they would need.
Mussina pitched a 1-2-3 third and got three pop-ups around a one-out Pierzynski single in the fourth. Then came the fifth. Jermaine Dye lead off with a clean single in the hole into left. Rowand followed with a double to the left field gap that both Matsui and Womack misplayed. As Dye came home with the first Chicago run, the relay throw veered toward the White Sox dugout. Rowand them moved to third on a Crede groundout to Cano and scored on a Uribe sac fly to Matsui. After having completely imploded in the fifth inning of his last start, Mussina gave up two-thirds of the Yankee lead in the fifth inning of this one, while laboring his way to 91 pitches, finally striking out Podsednik with a full count to end the inning.
Mussina then retired the first two men in the sixth before giving up a bloop single to Konerko and a ground-rule double to Timo Perez, who, testifying to the poor quality of the Chicago bench, started at designated hitter with Jurassic Carl Everett still nursing a groin injury. Mussina then battled Jermaine Dye over eight pitches, getting ahead with strike one, then 1-2, before Dye worked the count full, fouling off a pair of pitches in the process. Finally, Mussina's 123rd pitch of the night came in over the middle of the plate, just above the knee, and broke inside and down as Dye swung over it for strike three, ending the White Sox threat and Mussina's night.
After that, the Yankees' Big Three did their job in style. Sturtze needed eight pitches (seven strikes) to work a 1-2-3 seventh. Gordon needed just eight more tosses to work a perfect eighth. Finally, Mariano Rivera threw seven strikes, not allowing a ball past the infield and blowing away Rowand with a high heater to nail down the 3-2 win, converting his career-best 30th consecutive save opportunity.
There was one other play worth mentioning from this game. With Gary Sheffield on first in the bottom of the fifth via yet another walk, Alex Rodriguez drove a pay-off pitch to the wall in right where Jermaine Dye made a nifty catch. Sheffield, sure Rodriguez had picked up a double, had rounded second and was in fast retreat back around the keystone toward first when Dye launched his throw to Konerko at the bag. Rodriguez, meanwhile, had rounded first himself and was standing in fair territory behind first as Dye's throw quickly approached him from deep right. Rodriguez watched the ball come towards him and, as it came near, slowly turned to allow it to hit him in the rear, deflecting it into foul territory, and preventing Sheffield from being doubled up to end the inning, which he surely would have been.
The play immediately reminded me of the famous instance in Game Four of the 1978 World Series when, with one out in the Yankee half of the sixth and runners on first and second, Lou Pinella hit into a would-be double play, but Reggie Jackson (the runner on first) hip checked Bill Russell's pivot throw into right field, allowing Thurman Munson to score from second, closing the Dodger lead to 3-2 in a game the Yankees would eventually win 4-3 in ten innings on their way to their second straight World Series victory over the Dodgers.
In both cases, the umpires ruled the contact between the runner and the ball was unintentional and allowed the play to stand. While Jackson made a more obvious effort to interfere with the ball, jutting his hip out into the ball's path, the way I saw it, Rodriguez's play was no less intentional. Indeed, Rodriguez is exactly the type of player who (as Slapgate showed us) is always willing to try something in the hope that the umpires will rule in his favor. In this case, the play was of no consequence. Sheffield stole second, but with two outs, Matsui struck out to end the inning.
In other news, prior to last night's game, the Yankees sent down the Columbus Clippers' official martyr Andy Phillips and called up infielder Felix Escalona. Since being recalled on July 19, Phillips had appeared in just two of the Yankees' eighteen games, a level of neglect that's downright offensive. In those two appearances, Phillips went 1 for 4 with a single, a walk and a strike out. Two of those at-bats came as a defensive substitution after Torre pinch-ran for Tino Martinez in a game on July 31. The other two came this past Friday against Toronto, his first start since May 7. In that game, Phillips, who made a nice scoop play at first earlier in the contest, was removed in the seventh inning for defensive sub Martinez with the Yankees up 3-0.
Clearly, Phillips is still paying for his five-strikeout night against Scott Kazmir and the Devil Rays on May 2. He's had just twelve major league plate appearances since, despite hitting the tar out of the ball in Columbus two years running (somewhere Colter Bean is making a little violin with his thumb and forefinger).
As for Escalona, well, he gives the Yankees more flexibility in the infield, and Joe Torre has expressed the need to give Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez some days off (though with just Escalona on the roster, he still can't rest them both at once--nor should he--and Phillips could just as easily have played third to spell Rodriguez, or to allow Rodriguez to move to short to spell Jeter). The 26-year-old Escalona is following up his breakout 2004 campaign with the Clippers in which he hit .308/.371/.431 (.275 GPA) by hitting .274/.363/.393 (.262 GPA) as the Clipper's starting shortstop. In both cases, his on-base percentage has been aided greatly by his being hit by 17 pitches each season for a total of 34 HBPs against 57 walks combined.
Escalona was preferable to Enrique Wilson last year (though all he was given was a cup of Turkish coffee in which he went 0 for 8 and was hit by a pitch), and Rey Sanchez this spring, but given the Yankees' willingness to promote (if not play) Russ Johnson and Andy Phillips, hasn't really earned this turn with the big club. In addition to short, he can play second and third. Expect him to be to the infield what Tony Womack has been to the outfield over the past two months: a looming out.